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My fascination with Selbu mittens and their shared threads to India

Saranya S., a textile designer from Kerala, India, moved to Trondheim only a few months ago. She fell head over heels for the traditional Norwegian — but strangely familiar — Selbu mittens from south Trøndelag.

It was on a particularly chilly October day when I noticed a young girl on the bus wearing a beautiful pair of mittens. In a sea of plain-coloured practical clothing, the intricate black and white mittens with pointy tips stood out. For some reason, I was completely enamoured with them and had to know more.

You see, it’s a bit tricky to understand how people manage to live their lives in freezing temperatures when you’ve never known anything but a tropical climate. So, I observed closely everything that the locals around me were wearing and took notes on how to dress aptly for the coming winter.

What I noticed first was the strong preference for muted colours and functionality. I appreciate the nuance of the style now (and its utility), but it’s a sharp contrast to India. There, textile traditions are a big part of our identity and each state has their unique everyday garments. Of course, Norway shows that side on the national day when all the bunads come out — which was a feast for my craft-loving heart! But the mittens seemed to be the only vestiges of this during the winter, so I had to know more.

The Selbu mittens are traditionally knitted in two colours, which isn’t just a tasteful design but also has functional advantages too. Having two yarns makes the mittens thicker and helps keep the cold at bay. The classic mittens are black and white, but through the years many different colours have been used for both backgrounds and patterning. — Illustration by Saranya S.

After a little digging and trips to the library, I discovered a famous tale of a teenager named Marit Emstad from Selbu, a municipality here in Trøndelag. Back in the 19th century, she knitted a pair of mittens she wore to church and her trendsetter status was cemented for the ages. The design became wildly popular and it even garnered fans beyond Norway. What was groundbreaking was that this was the first time a two-colour knitted work appeared in Norway, but today it’s considered quintessentially Norwegian. The featured motif, an eight-petalled rose has been known as the selburose ever since. But why did I get infatuated with these mittens?

Firstly, they look cute! Secondly, they reminded me of something from back home. Even though I had never worn mittens in my life before moving to Trondheim, the flower motif felt strangely familiar. I remembered seeing the selburose on cotton and silk textiles in India. Actually, my mother even owned a sari with a similar motif!

The star-shaped motif is called 'nakhatram' in the southern part of India, meaning star. It is also called 'mallepulu,' the word for jasmine, representing purity, kindness, and married life. It can be seen in many Indian textiles, especially in 'telia rumal' textile and 'pochampally saree'.

While the selburose has come to represent winter, the eight-petalled rose did not necessarily originate from Marit’s famous mittens. It originated… somewhere else. I spent hours in the library trying to pinpoint it exactly, but the more I read, the more complicated it became. Following the trail of this design, I realised I could find it almost everywhere I looked!

It’s been around for centuries and in some countries, it is often interpreted as a snowflake or a star and signifies balance and harmony. Traditional Swedish textiles and Ukrainian embroidery also have this eight-pointed star as a recurring motif. It often symbolises the 8 directions (N, NW, W, etc.) and in Estonian culture, it is supposed to be a symbol of fertility and protects one from evil.

It’s remarkable that something as simple as a pattern on a glove in a bus in Trondheim can be so steeped in history. It’s also fascinating how iconography and symbolisms become a part of traditions across countries. This serves as a reminder that underneath all our differences we can still find things that connect us. From being just a protective garment, these mittens became the canvas for a symbol that is shared by cultures globally.

I never thought that my curiosity for simple mittens would send me down a rabbit hole of history, unravelling an elaborate story. And since I’ve professed my love for these mittens, is it time for me to knit my own?

Nope, I’ll just put it on my Christmas wish list instead!


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